05 December 2008

Shoulder to Shoulder

Although I disagree with his initial, somewhat hyperbolic, line that "There is a crisis at the heart of the blogosphere", I was intrigued and alarmed to read Yapping Yousuf's latest post, concerning Alex Hilton's LabourHome site.

Recently, a post was left by someone else on the site, concerning a former Labour activist, who switched to Respect, and then to the Tories (unnh?). That person complained about the post, and it was deleted ASAP. Alex Hilton then offered them the right of reply on the frontpage of his blog. The offer was declined.

Instead, the subject of that post is now suing both its author and Alex Hilton for defammation.

Now, Hilton has taken legal advice, and the signs look good. However, he is unlikely to recoup his legal costs, and if he does lose, he will find himself looking at the wrong end of a five-figure compensation claim he cannot afford.

Now, as I said, I don't take Yousuf's view that it is a crisis. Rather, I am of the opinion (and I have placed that word 'opinion' in there for legal purposes as I cannot be sued for having an opinion) that the claimant has spat the dummy out, and it has reached a lawyer's office. This is, in my belief (see above), a very expensive temper tantrum, entirely unwarranted given Hilton's response to the situation.

Nevertheless, while I don't agree with the word 'crisis', I do agree with Yousuf's words here:

This has massive ramifications for us all. Imagine if I write a post about Labour in Glasgow Central. Someone then writes a comment about one of the SNP activists in Govanhill. I remove the comment after a complaint and then we both get sued!!

The situation could easily be reversed: I could write about Ochil & South Perthshire, someone could comment on a Labour activist there, I could act to remove the comment and still find myself dealing with a lawsuit. It is happening to Alex Hilton. It could happen to Yousuf, myself, or anyone next time. It's not a crisis yet, but it could become one.

I'm all for accountability in the blogosphere, but that comes by scrutinising the blog (and, if need be, the blogger), and a process that is almost Darwinian: the well-written blogs, which get a lot of care and attention put into them, thrive, the weak ones perish. Where someone publishes a false accusation about someone, then the author deserves to be challenged, and the person running the website (if that's a different person) needs to taken action to correct matters amicably. Alex Hilton did that. This lawsuit now is, in my opinion, the most vile form of petty vindictiveness, and an attempt to break a man, whose only role in this was to set up a site to promote the political party he supports, and reolve a dispute sensibly. He does not deserve this.

Alex is, as you can imagine, seeking help in his fight. And he's turned to the blogosphere for that support: he needs a defence fund and he needs it now. You can read his side of the story, and donate to that fund here.

I have read it, and I have donated, and here's why: whatever your politics, you can agree that no one deserves what Alex is now going through. And more importantly, while this on its own isn't a crisis, it is the first blast of the trumpet. It's bad enough that a responsible blogger who promotes openness on his site should be victimised for what other people leave there. It's worse still that the victimisation should continue despite him making all the right moves. It's diabolical that he should then be sued because of it. And if that precedent is set, that's when we have the crisis. That is, bascially, when the whole existence of the blogosphere becomes pointless, with bloggers constrained, unable to let commenters on just in case, or worse, restricting their own views to avoid a chat with a lawyer.

We must help nip this in the bud today, by getting our hands in our pockets. Or it could be any of us tomorrow, facing a far larger bill.

That's why I'm standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Alex, Yousuf and Iain Dale to name but three.

Stand with us.


Stuart Winton said...

I do have some sympathy for Alex Hilton but, like the Damien Green affair, some of the commentary on the issue seems to be blowing the thing out of proportion.

Since the injured party clearly isn't a well known person, Alex took all possible steps to mitigate the damage, and if his comments are correct then the defamation is at worst questionable, then damages were likely to be negligible, thus if he wins and isn't awarded costs then he might well have been better off not hiring a lawyer and perhaps negotiating and out of court settlement.

On the other hand, since the pursuer is representing himself would it have been beyond Alex to do likewise, or at least have found some contact in the Labour Party to help him out? After all, it's unlikely to be a hugely complicated case.

In any case, whether the case is won or lost, what's the wider significance? I can't really see any. It's not going to set a legal precedent, and the risk from internet-based defamation cases has been evident for years, and although the vast majority of really defamatory remarks are just ignored (ie those involving well known people) those that aren't are mostly settled without undue fuss.

There will always be the odd person who, for whatever reason, will feel the need to take things further, but that's always been the case, and this won't change in future, and in this wider scheme of things Alex Hilton's case is unlikely to change much.

Will said...

Stuart, I see your points, and I agree that a lot of this should be needless and that the outcome ought to be clear.

Nevertheless, I personally do se a wider significance - not necessarily a legal one, but a set of basic principles.

Is it that the blogosphere should be out of the law's scope? No. Anyone whose character is defamed online is absolutely right to have legal recourse.

But in that case, should the blogosphere be regulated by lawsuit? Again, no. The blogosphere is self-policing to a large degree, and while there are questions as to how well that works, I think it's far more effiient than everyone requiring a solicitor's number on speed dial.

My concern is that if you have one case of this, where a largely frivolous lawsuit is started, more will follow. I'm not thinking about this case so much as the one that follows (that said, I think Alex absolutely had to take proper legal advice so as to understand his rights and ensure that his defence is 100% effective - remember, even Tommy Sheridan only sacked his legal team once his case reached court). It's not about what's happening today, as what might happen tomorrow, which is why I state as clearly and as often as I can that there is no crisis yet.

I do see the blogosphere as a community, though it doesn't have a formal structure and while the absence of a hierarchy can be a strength, the absence of a clear support network when a problem hits can be a massive weakness. While internal rows among bloggers can be common, none of them actually suggest suing the clothes off another blogger's back, which is the basic upshot of what is happening in this case.

That's why, at the first sign of trouble, we need to rally together. There may be no formal structure, but there's still scope for community solidarity and that's what I'm in favour of. The message we're promoting is that an attack on one blogger is an attack on every blogger, and we will support each other in resisting that attack. Alex Hilton on his own is in a difficult position. Alex Hilton with the support of the rest of the blogosphere is on a firmer footing.

And, I confess, there's an element of enlightened self-interest at work. It's him today. It could be me tomorrow. A network of people who will stand together on this becomes a long-standing group of people who will support each other. Who knows when its members may need that? And who knows what they'll need it for?

That's why it's important that we get on board: not because we know what's happening now but because we don't know what might happen in the future, and the sooner we have another precedent of concerted action and solidarity, the better. It might not deter future legal challenges, but we will have a better, faster way of responding when they happen.

I re-iterate: the crisis to the blogosphere is not upon us, though this must be a massively trying time for Alex. But if we act now, we can prevent future problems. That, for me, is the wider significance.

Calum Cashley said...

He didn't need to spend a penny, a solicitor would have given him all he needed to contest it in minutes - and a decent solicitor wouldn't charge him for it.

Besides which, anyone who runs a website of any kind should have some idea of how the law works in defamation cases.

The defence is innocent dissemination - especially effective since he offered to right the wrong - and he should have simply responded to the complainer and told them to push off.

Stuart Winton said...

Will, I don't wholly disagree with what you say, but I think the action is the exception rather than the rule, and I can't really see it setting a trend.

Indeed, if anything if too much fuss is made of it and Alex made a martyr then that could encourage copycat actions, thus to that extent the blogosphere could be hoist by its own petard.

Another factor could be that an article written by Iain Dale said that Alex and his co-owner sold the site for £50k, thus this could be stimulant for the litigant.

Thus the moral is, if someone offers you a fortune for JAMcN, DON'T SELL!!

But, as Calum alludes, it's probably the case that Alex has dug himself into a bit of a hole.